Deer Beds to Food Sources: Small Parcels, Big Whitetail Rewards
What size do you think a tiny hunting parcel is? It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if some of you answered 500 acres. Well, what about 200 acres? Can you imagine 100 acres? Certainly 40 acres probably would seem extremely small to most, however, what if I were to tell you that an early January 2007 customer of mine is greatly enjoying his 22 acre parcel and is extremely optimistic….
for the upcoming deer season! Yep, I can just imagine, some of you are actually feeling sorry for the poor guy right now. Well, as the “price per acre” continues to climb the size of hunting parcels continue to fall. Although 22 acres may seem impossible to work with I’m here to tell you it’s not, and at the same time because of the tools of modern management shrinking parcels have never seemed larger.
I can think back to my earlier hunting years to a 5-acre woodlot located in a southern MI agricultural region. That woodlot was truly small. The hunting was fairly decent because the parcel was surrounded by a few hundred acres of planted crops, but unfortunately there was virtually no spot in the entire woods in which you could not stand and see just about every inch of the entire 5 acres. On the contrary, another 5-acre parcel located within the same section “had it all”. The parcel had exterior brushy screening cover including red willow, speckled alder, interior fields of native grasses and weeds, a central 1 acre patch of dense bedding brush, and a small pond on the west side surrounded by a few hardwoods that acted as the beginning of two long brushy perpendicular fencerows separating agricultural plantings. The 2nd parcel appeared much larger but of course it was not. However, the over-sized local deer population must have thought it was much larger, because several times I witnessed over 20 deer pouring out of the dense brush to feed on the adjacent alfalfa field in early fall. A the same time, although the nearby 5 acre open woodlot was often used to funnel traveling deer within the large section of planted crops, it typically failed to offer any daylight use to anything but squirrels and chipmunks.
It seems like yesterday, but I first enjoyed hunting those parcels almost 20 years ago. But, even as a young hunter those extremely small parcels taught me two things: First, not every parcel is created equal and second, it does not take very many acres to become a literal hot spot of deer activity. The key on a parcel of 22 acres is to create as many strategically located hotspots as possible and if the parcel can be hunted effectively and efficiently while not disturbing those hotspots, even a 22 acre parcel can appear much larger to you and the local deer herd than it actually is, and I’m going to tell you how.
The 22-acre parcel is located in a Midwest semi-agricultural region with moderate deer densities. There is little to no winter mortality in this location and it’s probably safe to say there is a little more cover than open fields. The reason I’m not going to be too specific about the location of this parcel is simply because it doesn’t matter. Instead, I think it’s important to focus on the aspects of this parcel that you can possibly relate to in the management of your own private hunting grounds.
Imagine a square parcel bordered on the south and west sides by a blacktop rural road. Across the west lies a grassy field that funnels deer easterly to the property from a river-bottom bedding area. The landowner has already planted a 1-acre food plot on the lower west side of the parcel that obviously contributes to the movements across the road. Moving to the east side of the planted food plot a fairly dark woods consisting of fir, yellow birch, spruce, ash, and soft maple flanks a centrally located small ridge system extending from the NW corner to the SE corner of the parcel. In the middle of the ridge the landowner has the beginnings of a large, centrally located food plot with only the stumps to remove. To the northeast of the food plot the timber becomes even darker, transitioning from small pockets of aspen and soft maple scattered with white cedar to a middle-aged all cedar stand in the NE corner complete with exposed pockets of standing water. The north boundary of the parcel is an extremely dense mix of alder and pockets of conifer providing extremely thick low screening cover. Finally, the east side contains an all-cedar mix that eventually gives way to the same overgrown field first-growth mix of young conifer and aspen that is located across the road on the south side of the parcel. There is quite a bit of “cover”, but even more diversity can be used to make this parcel a bit “larger” than it already is.
Does this seem like a lot to work with? Well, upon my initial inspection of the ariel photos it did, and when I was finally able to complete an on-site inspection with the landowner the variety of bedding and screening cover options kept us in the woods for several hours on a cold early January day. For starters, the landowner had planted red pines and white spruce for screening cover on the west side of the established food plot. The varieties were a great choice because the seedlings would experience little to no browsing pressure from the moderately sized local deer herd. The young trees were perfectly spaced for optimum future boards per foot, but because the landowner’s needs were sooner than later I recommended he double up on his pine plantings for targeted screening cover in 5-6 years, and that he add another exterior row of slower growing white spruce for ultimate long-lasting screening cover in 10-12 years. Finally, an easy fall screen located on the west and south side of the long narrow plot could be installed each year by broadcasting a 6’ strip of annual rye on the exposed soil in early spring. The deer would leave the rye alone after it reaches a height of 6-8” in the spring and by late summer the planting would be approximately 4’ high and could offer at least a little privacy to the deer that were feeding fairly close to the road. However, these “cover” options were just the beginning.
Because the bulk of the hunting efforts will have to take place on the SW ½ of the parcel, it is important to not only maintain the integrity of the bedding areas on the NE ½, but to improve them as well. The white cedars are a great asset to the parcel. The stand of cedar includes bedding cover, shaded canopy, and water, but at the same time very little screening cover. By utilizing several mixed pockets of aspen and soft maple that run in a northerly direction between the NW to SE ridge and the heaviest area of cedar, both screening and increased bedding cover can be addressed. The pockets are 30 to 40’ in diameter and by completing wildlife opening cuttings that influence the moderately aged trees to fall outward, several interior openings can be counted on to provide secluded bedding areas adjacent to the darker conifer cover to the east. The cuttings generally continue in a line running from north to south so plenty of mid-day sunlight will aid in regeneration and the screening cover provided by the fallen low-quality timber species will be utilized for immediate improvement. Because the cuttings will extend outward from the small pockets deer will easily travel through their new bedding areas. Also, the cuttings will improve the existing bedding areas within the cedar by offering increased interior privacy from the westerly hunting movements. Finally, by using sand and a shovel if needed, any existing “humps” created by protruding cedar root balls can be enhanced to improve the bedding platforms above the exposed wet areas and a chainsaw can be quickly used to remove low cover within any newly created deer beds. In my experience within the region the larger pockets of cuttings will most often be used by doe family groups, while the nearby raised solitary bedding platforms within the cedar will most often be used by bucks.
With the use of a chainsaw, a few hundred seedlings, some annual rye, sand, and a shovel the screening cover and bedding diversity can be improved on the entire property but the landowners desire to hunt and harvest some does and at least 2.5 year old bucks will also hinge on his ability to provide some hotspots of nutrition.
Attraction and Nutrition
One of my primary concerns with the entire property was the 1-acre food plot located along the road on the west side of the parcel. Because the area is a little more cover than planted crops, the nutrition offered on the property should be counted on to maintain a consistent focus of deer activity within the property borders. Unlike low cover large agricultural areas, a more aggressive nutritional program is both appropriate and necessary for ultimate success. The improved cover will be great, but in order to attract deer to utilize that cover the landowner is going to have to provide some fairly decent nutrition, starting with the 1-acre roadside plot.
The roadside plot is in a good area to provide spring through early fall nutrition at a time when the hunting and potential poaching pressure is at it’s lowest. At the same time, it is important to keep the inward focus of the local deer herd in an ever-increasing pattern as the most intense periods of hunting season approach. I recommended to the landowner that he maintain a perennial base on the roadside plot, while at the same time establish an annual rotation on the large “ridge-plot” that is more centrally located. Also, two small hunting plots will need to be installed to the NW and SE of the ridge plot for both added attraction and hunting success. Basically, as the use of the perennial exterior plot diminished due to frosts, freezes, and approaching winter dormancy closer to the mid-hunting season, the cool season portion of the annual plantings on the interior plants will be peaking, offering both great attraction and good nutrition at a critical period.
By using the food plots in this manner the landowner can increase his food plot total to around 10%, which is an important benchmark for small parcels of moderate to high nutritional needs. If the nutritional needs and moderated deer densities stay the same, but the parcel size is larger, I’ve found the overall percentage of food plot can be decreased to 4 to 5%, which is still considerably more than most large agricultural regions would dictate. The addition of the two hunting plots will not only provide increased attraction and nutrition directed towards the interior of the property, but they will also play an important role in the overall hunting strategy on the 22-acre parcel.
Hunting Strategy, Stand Locations, and Access
By creating a SW to NE chain of hotspots through the small parcel, the landowner will now have a more definitive approach to his hunting efforts. The hunting plots will be located close enough to capitalize on the predictable deer movements, but far enough away from the larger centrally located plot to not spook deer as the hunting stands are accessed on the outside edges of the small plots. Also, the 1/8th acre hunting plots lack the size to attract and hold foraging deer for any great length of time so the total deer/hunter encounters will be kept to a minimum. The landowner can simply use the road to access either set of stand locations depending on the direction of the wind and because he will not be accessing his stands through feeding or bedding areas, his stands will remain as “fresh” as they possibly can on a 22 acre parcel.
Another management tool to assist the landowner in defining the SW to NE deer movements will be the addition of two 150’ snow fences extending from the NE and SE corners of the 1 acre west plot, towards the center of the eastern edge. What this will do is to strongly discourage the deer from traveling horizontally along the north and south boundaries of the property, providing an even safer access to stand locations for the landowner while at the same time increasing the odds of deer travel on the upwind side of the stand locations.
The last key to the landowner’s hunting strategy will be to use the slight ridge that travels through the property to his advantage as he access his hunting stands. Instead of traveling on top of the ridge in a manner that will expose his movements at the highest level, his movements will instead stick to the west side of the small ridge so that any deer bedding in the NE corner of the property will have a harder time seeing and hearing his approaches.
Literally, an errant “sneeze” could ruin even a hint of a sanctuary on 22 acres. So, can you actually have a sanctuary on 22 acres? Well, probably not in the description that most of you may think of a sanctuary, but the way that a sanctuary relates to such a small parcel is that you truly have to use the entire parcel as if it is one sanctuary. Even when entering a stand site, it’s critical that you blend as much with the surroundings as possible, even though you are certainly an obtrusive figure. The noise of your approach, the smell of your clothes and boots, the sounds your clothes and equipment make, the noise from your tree stand all have to be in the highest “stealth mode” you can muster to prolong the integrity of the entire parcel. On a parcel the size of 22 acres, one wrong move can literally end your hunt before it begins.
Where are the sanctuaries on this 22-acre parcel? Personally, I think it’s easier to ask, “where aren’t they”? True, the landowner will have to use his stand sites if he wants to actually hunt, but on a parcel this small the sanctuary just doesn’t end with a designation of a spot on a map. Instead, the sanctuary encompasses the entire aspect of land use, from sight, to sound, to smell, to location, as the landowner becomes a part of his surroundings instead of an unwelcome guest.
Habitat diversity, quality food plots, numerous bedding area enhancements, and layers of screening cover will all contribute to creating numerous hotspots on this 22 acre parcel. With extremely small parcels the key is not to think of a parcel as one, but to think of the parcel as a collection of as many tools of attraction as possible built into a cohesive unit of size-busting potential. Of course, a 22-acre parcel will never “grow” into 100 acres, but with the application of some fairly intense tools of management I believe you can fool the local deer herd into thinking it has. You’ve all heard the expression, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog” and I think that’s an appropriate thought process when managing a small parcel. You have to give your small parcel as much “bite” as you possibly can and in my experience you can easily bluff your property into the largest small parcel in the neighborhood.
By Jeff Sturgis, www.whitetailhabitatsolutions.com